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The Whole Language vs Phonics Controversy Rages On

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


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By Donna J. Sullivan, M.A.

What a surprise it was to learn that controversy regarding the teaching of beginning reading is still alive and well!  Specifically, I recently learned that what is known as the whole language philosophy is still alive and breathing, despite the large body of highly scientific, rigorous research, especially under the auspices of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, pursued vigorously beginning in the 1980s. This highly conclusive research, long-term and multidisciplinary, yielded consistent, replicable results, which led to specific recommendations for the teaching of reading skills directly, contrary to the whole language philosophy.  

Whole language is a method of teaching reading that emphasizes learning whole words by encountering them in meaningful contexts rather than by using phonics.  Students are encouraged to guess at unknown words based on what fits into the reading material.

What Is Phonological Processing?

Phonological processing is the primary area where children with reading disabilities differ from other children. Phonological processing is the ability to identify the number and order of sounds (phonemes) in a spoken word. We are generally not consciously aware of the number and order of sounds in spoken words, but for many of us, learning to read enables us to do this to a greater or lesser extent. For individuals with a reading disability, if not remediated, this difficulty in segmenting syllables and words into constituent sounds persists into adulthood, and it is a major obstacle for learning to read regardless of age. Direct, explicit instruction is effective in developing this skill and should be available in every kindergarten, first grade, and remedial reading program.

Interestingly, I was involved in teaching a 30-year-old man, who had been previously involved in remedial programs, to read after developing his ability to perceive the number and order of sounds within words.  “Where were you 25 years ago?” he asked me in frustration. Think about it: when we spell and read, we are attaching symbols (letters) to sounds. If we cannot identify the number and order of sounds in a word, how can the alphabetic principle make any sense?

Direct, Explicit Instruction Benefits All Students

Explicit, systematic, direct instruction in sound/spelling relationships (phonics) should be incorporated along with phonemic processing. Every student benefits from this instruction, not only the reading challenged. Not all phonics programs are effective, however, especially those that are random and those that rely on visuals, such as pictures to represent specific sounds. Sounds should be taught orally in isolation and practiced each day until they become automatic. This need not be a long or tedious practice, but it should be consistent within a structured program. The use of systematic direct instruction in phonics is the primary reason that schools such as Landmark, which developed its own systematic phonics program, and others who use an Orton-Gillingham structured phonics approach, have been largely successful in teaching those with reading disabilities.  Children need to be shown exactly how to blend sounds into words, and they need to use decodable connected text to practice the sound/symbol relationships they have learned.

A reader needs to be able to decode at least 80% of the words on the page in order to comprehend what they are reading.  

Decodable text is made up of words that use only sound/symbol correspondences that children have learned to that point and a limited number of “sight” words that do not “play fair” and need to be learned individually. A reader needs to be able to decode at least 80% of the words on the page in order to comprehend what they are reading. This is not going to be interesting and exciting reading. What is exciting is the realization that one is actually decoding, actually reading the text, not guessing at it.

Now, it is true that reading these predictable, decodable stories is not going to develop language comprehension, which is emphasized in the whole language philosophy, and comprehension is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. During the early stages of learning to read, children’s oral language comprehension will be much higher than their reading comprehension level. This means that it is vital for the teacher to read more sophisticated stories regularly to children to develop vocabulary and comprehension skills, and they should encourage making inferences and discuss meaning with students based on the stories read to them. Then, after the children become more fluent, they will know how to apply comprehension strategies on their own.

Providing teachers with the knowledge and the skill necessary to teach reading effectively has to become our very highest priority in education.

There is a plethora of research to support direct systematic beginning reading instruction. This begs the question of why it has not been more widely implemented in schools?  The fact is that many of our teachers have not been exposed to recommended methods of teaching reading, and were not themselves taught by them. Having attended college as an adult in the 1980s, after 25 years at home with my children, I had one reading course as part of my program which was whole-language oriented. Subsequently, pursuing a master’s degree in special education, I had no additional reading course, because the assumption was that because we were all teachers we knew how to teach reading. This was despite the fact that a majority of the special needs students we would be servicing had reading difficulty as a primary issue. From this, my conclusion has to be that these proven methods have not been widely implemented because teachers may not know them, through no fault of their own. What a pity! The latest results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that only 36% of grade four students, 34% of grade five students, and 37% of grade 12 students are at or above proficient in reading. That means that everyone else is less than proficient! 63% of our high school graduates cannot read at the level expected of a high school graduate! Providing teachers with the knowledge and the skill necessary to teach reading effectively has to become our very highest priority in education.

About the Author

Donna J. Sullivan, M.A. is the founding director of the Commonwealth Learning Center in Needham, an instructor and program coordinator for the Simmons College graduate program in Special Needs, director of Curriculum and Instruction at the Carroll School in Lincoln, and served most happily as director of Reading Programs at Landmark School from 1998 to 2003. Currently retired, Donna maintains contact in the field by providing private tutoring services and consulting in the field of reading. 

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